How to avoid common mistakes in Triathlon swimming

Intro

by Alun Woodward – ironguides.net

If you’re like most Age Group athletes, one of the most challenging (and frustrating) aspects of your training is how to improve your swim time. For many athletes the question that arises once they’ve acquired basic swim skills is: Why am I not getting any faster in my races? To answer this question we have to step back a little and understand that the requirements of pool swimming and open water triathlon swimming are very different.

First let’s start by understanding that “open water swimming” is not about extending the lane in your pool into an empty, 1500-meter long, flat water course with a lane rope on each side (as some swim instructors have recently suggested). Instead, open water swimming as experienced by the vast majority of Age Group swimmers is a churning, rough-and-tumble experience in which all the rules of pool swimming are broken! How long have you been able to hold a delicate, careful, well thought out stroke in a race?

That’s right – about 10 seconds! With every stroke there seems to be something to impede your progress and stall you in the water: Chop from the wind, other swimmers’ elbows, someone pulling on you or swimming overtop of you, ocean swell, murky water, air bubble froth, feet impeding your ability to catch water, and so on. It’s like swimming in a washing machine and needing to re-accelerate with every stroke! Because of this constant interference and challenge at every stroke, the truth about triathlon swimming is that to improve your abilities in the open water you need to do almost the opposite of what you did to develop swim technique in the pool!

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In traditional swim training you are encouraged to emulate the top swimmers in the sport, who after a lifetime of swimming twice a day are able to “swim like a dolphin”, able to recruit a large proportion of muscle mass to slip effortlessly through the water lap after lap at top speed, high intensity and with beautiful form. The truth is that these swimmers have literally worked that lifetime to develop an extreme level of aerobic fitness and swim-specific strength and muscle recruitment that has no bearing on triathlon swimming for most triathletes – including the very best of our pro’s! Asking you to learn to swim the same way with limited time, a lifetime of not swimming, modest aerobic development and low swim-specific strength is like asking a dolphin to type like a human!

Pool coach - swimmer training competition

A typical Age Group triathlete has trained their aerobic fitness to handle “getting through” the distance required by their race. If you’re not coming from a swim background and have a history of limited swim training, or you have learned to swim using a focus on drills and pool technique, you’ve probably learned to conserve your energies using a very careful, deliberate “thought-out” swim stroke. Your stroke appears reasonably proficient, with high elbows, a long glide and a streamlined body, but you lack the strength to power through the difficulties faced in the open water. As a result you are constantly coming to a near stop and need to re-accelerate at every stroke, which is a very energy-consuming process.

In the pool the typical “maximum glide per stroke” approach most of us have been taught (usually by pool swimmers!) works great at first. With a massive acceleration off the wall every 25 to 50m, and with nothing to interfere with our focus and concentration as we carefully apply each stroke in un-crowded conditions, we can end up making reasonable progress as long as nothing interferes.

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But apply this approach to the open water and we end up leaving ourselves wide open to the decelerating forces all around us. Without the strength to power through each wave, bit of current, grabbed ankle, chop, or interfering elbow we end up at a near standstill with each stroke! Our long stroke in fact becomes a hindrance –the longer and more “glide-oriented” your stroke is, the longer you leave yourself open to obstruction in the water! Each millisecond is one more opportunity to stall! And without the aerobic engine to support constant re-accelerations we quickly tire and settle into “survival” mode.

How do we overcome this without substantially increasing our swim mileage? The answer: Learn an open water stroke!

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